Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.

The Hurt Locker

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  …Dude.

How about a spot of tea?

Uh... How about a spot of tea?

Review:  Whoa.  ‘The Hurt Locker’ is killer.  This is not a product of hype, here; it really is that good.  The fact that it defeated the big, bad ‘Avatar’ is awesome, and is a testament to a simple fact:  3-D is (until proven otherwise) an irrelevant addition to cinema.  Seriously.  You might as well install smell-o-vision, water sprayers or dynamic, vibrating chairs in cinemas.  Theme Park rides are cool, and are indeed a kind of art, but they are not the same as cinema.  The heart of cinema is the characters and their universe, not eye-candy.  If you can buy the characters, it really doesn’t matter if the film is dead silent or extravagant in every way.  Music is also integral to cinema, and not in any way superfluous, but 3-D definitely is.  It has yet to prove itself as its own art.  Even the beautiful ‘Avatar’, I believe, was hurt by relying too much on it.  If 3-D is going to be respected, it can’t be a crutch.  But I digress.  Let’s talk ‘The Hurt Locker’.

The premise of director Kathryn Ann Bigelow’s opus is a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  After this quote fades away, we’re thrown into war-torn Iraq, focusing intently on a small U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit.  In the first scene, they try to disarm a bomb — and it ends with the unit leader running from the explosion.  What happens next shows us that the rules are much more realistic, and therefore harsher, than your typical thriller.  He dies.  You can’t just run from a bomb, here in ‘The Hurt Locker’.  They either explode and kill you, or they don’t, and chances are not good.  The unit gets a new leader, who quickly shows himself to be reckless and ruthless in his bomb-disarming tactics.  These “disarming” sequences are anything but that; they scare the hell out of you.  Hitchcock would be proud.  Music, performances, cinematography, etc… it’s all perfect.

This is a movie about all-consuming addiction in the form of war, or more accurately, in the form of adrenaline.  It affects us all, in some way or another.  Some people get their buzz from arguments, from gossip, from politics, from purposefully fed paranoia, from natural danger, or from dodging bullets and disarming bombs.  What happens to Sergeant James is what could happen to any of us adrenaline addicts; He loses his love of life and of people to his thrills.  As in the classic sci-fi film ‘Forbidden Planet’, the animalistic base nature, the ‘id’, is what threatens the protagonist.  In this case, he gradually loses his higher ambitions, indeed his humanity, to it.

In contrast to ‘Avatar’, this is how a moral message should be told in a story.  It should be organic, not overbearing.  I’m awfully glad this won Best Picture.  It has restored my faith in the Oscars.

Spider-man

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Moral, big-hearted and accessible superhero action, lacking the strong thematic interplay that has made subsequent superhero movies great.

Review:  After 2000’s ‘X-Men’ helped resurrect the cinematic future of superheroes everywhere, it was inevitable that Marvel Comic’s flagship character would finally get his proper live action adaptation.  The project was in development hell since at least the 80’s, and at one time was attached to James Cameron — with an awful script.  Thankfully, it eventually ended up in popular cult filmmaker Sam Raimi’s capable hands, with a screenplay by David Koepp.  The ultimate result helped cement the public’s faith in this new generation of superhero movies, made lots and lots of money, and was pretty darn good.

It’s easy to look back at ‘Spider-man’ with cynicism after the uber-excellent Nolan ‘Batman’ movies, which have taken all new superhero films to the next level of expectation and story complexity.  It’s the family-friendly, sometimes comic and very high-spirited kind of ethos that defined Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ that the filmmakers draw on for ‘Spider-man’, and thank God they did, since it was a movie set in New York that was released the summer after 9/11/2001.  The angsty-ness that is present in ‘Spider-man’ is much more subdued and related to the coming-of-age story that forms its backbone.  ‘Spider-man’ was a crucial breath of fresh air after the baptism of fire that had defined the previous Fall, and the coming-of-age story, centered on personal tragedy and the loss of security, resonated with young people.  For young adults who saw the movie that summer, the classic ‘Spider-man’ moral of “With great power comes great responsibility” meant something.  With the War on Terror threatening to consume their future, and faith in U.S. homeland security dramatically lessened, I wonder how many of them drew upon their great power of courage and took up the great responsibility of a soldier?

As a standalone film, though, just how good is it?  Well… still pretty good.  Though it has some strong themes, it would’ve benefitted from greater complexity, in my opinion, but as I said, it may also be best that it didn’t try to be more.  It has its goofiness, and the Green Goblin design isn’t that great.  The optimism and strength of the performances are what sell the movie.  Special effects had not quite yet caught up with the potential of the superhero, but they would for the sequels.  Danny Elfman proved he can write more than one great superhero score.  I laud his ‘Batman’ stuff a lot, but this score is pretty close.

Highly recommended, even for fans of ‘The Dark Knight’.  It makes a good, lighter counterpoint, but lacks the epicness of Donner’s ‘Superman’.

Classic Review: First Blood

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  While not revolutionary on a visual level, ‘First Blood’ brought a deep, heartfelt performance from Sylvester Stallone on par with ‘Rocky’, a great musical score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a very iconic character into cinema history.

Guess whos coming to dinner...

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Review:  A dusty road in a backwoods part of the country is unveiled to us, the audience, as Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic music fills our ears with a mournful, slightly adventurous tune.  Enter John J. Rambo, a Vietnam veteran turned drifter, as played by Sylvester Stallone.

And action movies would never be the same.

Based on the novel of the same name by David Morrell, ‘First Blood’ confronts the mistreatment of soldiers who had returned from Vietnam, while providing constant, gripping action.  Unlike the many imitators and sequels that followed, this film focuses on the character’s internal drama, which in turn fuels the action, rather than the inverse.  The idea of Rambo being a dumb killing machine is actually a misconception fueled by the sequels, since in this film he is very conscientious and obviously intelligent.  Stallone doesn’t play him like a generic antihero.  Arguably, he puts the same amount of emotional depth into the character that he does in his similarly iconic role as Rocky Balboa.

Along with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Die Hard’, and ‘Lethal Weapon’, this film framed the modern action film.  In this case, it inspired the common trope of the misunderstood soldier and his inability to adjust after being exposed to the horrors of war.  I can see inspiration from ‘First Blood’ in films ranging from the ridiculous (‘Commando’) to the surprisingly emotional (‘The Bourne Identity’ and its sequels).  Films like ‘Commando’ capitalized on the allure of the “super-soldier”, while ‘The Bourne Identity’ captured the same dramatic depth of character that is evident in ‘First Blood’.  Having not seen any of the ‘Rambo’ pictures until recently, I was very pleasantly surprised by the first installment.  One major element that contributed to this reaction is the movie’s restraint.

Unlike, say, the fourth ‘Rambo’ movie, this is a film that knows when to pull punches and when to throw them, hard.  Arguably the goriest moment is a man accidentally killed by John Rambo, the man being a deputy who tumbles out a low-flying helicopter to a bone-crushing death on a riverbed below.  Even then, no blood splatters, we simply see his heavily bruised remains afterward.  The second goriest moment is when another deputy is hit with a brutal trap set by Rambo, which impales his legs, but leaves him painfully alive.  Much ado is made of Rambo’s unwillingness to hurt innocents, or even misguided enemies.  What traps Rambo in this fight-or-flight situation in the first place is simple mistrust and prejudice from a small town’s sheriff.  Rambo even lets the deputies mistreat him without lashing out, until his post-traumatic stress disorder forces him to.  Though obviously having elements of a hero, while I was watching ‘First Blood’ I was convinced that Rambo was more the victim than the strict protagonist.  To me, the protagonist is his former CO, Colonel Samuel Trautman.  Trautman represents the moral ground zero, and, is the intellectual foil of the corrupt sheriff.  Trautman does his best to bring Rambo back from the edge of possible insanity, and when Rambo refuses, the question is, should Trautman give him up to the law or not?

Contrasted with the modern action film, this film is actually surprisingly tame, as noted above.  Were it not for several instances of the F-word, it would be a shoe-in for a PG-13 nowadays.  That said, the action is kept realistic and gritty enough that we feel its impact.  Speaking of impact, the film seems to owe one of its action scenes to another redefining action film, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Rambo hijacks a truck and gets involved in a brief chase, pushing a police vehicle off the road and crashing through barriers, with cinematography that is strikingly similar to the now famous truck chase in ‘Raiders’.  Considering that ‘Raiders’ came out a year before this film, it is plausible that the filmmakers wanted at least a nod to the previous year’s megahit.

The ending- which I will not spoil, as is tradition -is down/up.  Something is very clearly lost, yet something is very clearly gained.  It was unexpected and cathartic, so I wouldn’t want to say exactly what happens, only that Stallone pulls off a very difficult performance at a critical moment.

The technical aspects of the film are solid.  It doesn’t feel as dynamic in cinematography as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  The special effects, which are still impressive today, thanks to the lack of CGI trickery, have body and are quite memorable, similar to the previously mentioned films.  The music, which I mentioned at the beginning of this review, is pitch-perfect.  The late Jerry Goldsmith, echoing the film’s story, took what could have been a generic thriller and gave it dimension.

That said, the film is not as complete an emotional ride, to me, as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  Both of those films I give higher star ratings.  ‘Raiders’ is such a revolutionary film, which managed to succeed by using tropes establish near the very beginning of commercial film, that it has more artistic and visual merit.  ‘Die Hard’ takes the action hero, which was fast becoming a cookie-cutter character (and usually is, anyway), and lets him doubt himself, which is actually very similar to the character of Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders’.  ‘Die Hard’ is more entertaining than ‘First Blood’, to be completely frank.  The key flaw to ‘First Blood’, then, isn’t in general a flaw; it isn’t a film that manages to deliver on entertainment and spectacle quite as well.  Conversely, ‘First Blood’ is a great deal more serious than both of the former, and isn’t about spectacle or entertainment to the same degree. Nevertheless, as this article is about my subjective opinion, I give it a solid three stars.

Hopefully, action films will take a turn back in this direction, coupling restraint with a solid internal logic, and a compelling, iconic character.  There are still movies that deliver on this level, but as has always been the problem with cinema, and with art in general, it is far easier to find the bad than the great.  Until the day we get another icon like Rambo, “It’s a long road…

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.